Gabourey Sidibe Worked at a Phone-Sex Company for 3 Years Before Her Big Break: ‘My Acting School Was on the Phone’

Gabourey Sidibe got her acting chops in a rather unconventional manner!

Prior to scoring her breakthrough role in 2009’s Precious, the actress worked at a phone-sex company.

“I was actually pretty good at it,” Sidibe, 33, tells PEOPLE of the phone-sex gig, which she did for three years, fielding calls for two months before moving up in the business. “I did it for two months before I was promoted.”

In addition to opening up about her weight-loss surgery, the actress chronicles her life before she became famous in her new book This Is Just My Face, out in May. The New York City native got the job in her early twenties after she dropped out of college to focus on her mental health and attend therapy, having battled depression, anxiety and bulimia since she was a teenager. Though she promptly quit the job when she was cast in Precious at the age of 24, she insists her previous line of work prepped her for an acting career.

“I knew that when people were asking me, ‘So have you had any acting training?’ my acting school was on the phone, pretending to be some super-young 21-year-old college girl named Melody. I know that was my acting!” Sidibe says. “But I felt too stupid to say it.”

Still, she says she was nervous about sharing that aspect of her pre-fame life when she first broke onto the scene.

“I was really nervous about it when I was 25; I was really, really nervous about it when Precious was coming out,” says Sidibe, who went on to earn an Oscar nod for her role in the film. “The whole Oscar run, all of it — I was becoming an actor, becoming a person that people were interested in and looking at and judging, so I didn’t want what I did for work [to come out].”

Indeed, the Empire star was concerned about how people would react to taboo occupation — not that she was ashamed of it.

“I wasn’t just some phone whore,” she says. “Remember when [screenwriter] Diablo Cody‘s Juno was coming out, and people were like, ‘She’s an ex-stripper‘? Yeah, but she wrote this dope film. Can you not? Because that’s just one part of her life.”

While the star hasn’t worked in phone sex for almost a decade, she recently experienced a full-circle moment.

“The last photo shoot for my book was in the same office building that I did phone sex for three years in!” she says. “It’s so crazy! My editor came in, and I was like, ‘You’re not going to f—ing believe it: We’re on the third floor, but the office was on the tenth floor!’ So we went to the tenth floor to see how it changed. The place went out of business the second I wasn’t there anymore. It was so weird; all of my senses came alive. I could smell the HR room, the coffee over there … The last thing I did for the book was go right back to where I was a f—ing phone hoe!”

JASON LAVERIS/FILMMAGIC


Gabourey Sidibe Opens Up About Weight-Loss Surgery for the First Time: ‘I Love My Body Now’

Last year, the Empire star underwent weight-loss surgery, and she’s opening up about the experience — and her battle with depression, anxiety and bulimia — for the first time in her new memoir, This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare, excerpted exclusively in the latest issue of PEOPLE.

“I just didn’t want to worry,” Sidibe, 33, tells PEOPLE of her decision to get laproscopic bariatric surgery after she and her older brother Ahmed, 34, were diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. “I truly didn’t want to worry about all the effects that go along with diabetes. I genuinely [would] worry all the time about losing my toes.”

The star — who rose to fame playing the titular role in Precious in 2009 — tried for more than a decade to lose weight naturally before opting for the procedure. And in May of 2016, she secretly went under the knife.

“My surgeon said they’d cut my stomach in half. This would limit my hunger and capacity to eat. My brain chemistry would change and I’d want to eat healthier. I’ll take it! My lifelong relationship with food had to change,” she writes in her wise, witty and unapologetic memoir, out in May.

“The surgery wasn’t the easy way out,” she says. “I wasn’t cheating by getting it done. I wouldn’t have been able to lose as much as I’ve lost without it.”

Since the procedure, Sidibe has changed her eating habits — working with a nutritionist — and upped her fitness regimen, working out with a trainer, swimming and riding a tricycle around the Empire set.

The star’s decision to undergo surgery wasn’t one she took lightly. Since she was 6 years old, the New York City native has struggled with her appearance. And after her parents — a subway singer (mom Alice) and taxi driver (dad, Ibnou) — split, she battled depression, anxiety and bulimia, which she eventually overcame through therapy.

“It has taken me years to realize that what I was born with is all beautiful,” she writes in her book. “I did not get this surgery to be beautiful. I did it so I can walk around comfortably in heels. I want to do a cartwheel. I want not to be in pain every time I walk up a flight of stairs.”

Ten months after her procedure, Sidibe continues to lose weight.

“I have a goal right now, and I’m almost there,” she says. “And then once I’ve got it, I’ll set another. But my starting weight and my goal weight, they’re personal. If too many people are involved, I’ll shut down.”

Even before she decided to get the surgery, Sidibe had some hesitations.

“I know I’m beautiful in my current face and my current body. What I don’t know about is the next body,” she writes her in This Is Just My Face. “I admit it, I hope to God I don’t get skinny. If I could lose enough to just be a little chubby, I’ll be over the moon! Will I still be beautiful then? S—. Probably. My beauty doesn’t come from a mirror. It never will.”

Indeed, the American Horror Story alum has come to appreciate her appearance, no matter her dress size.

“There’s nothing ugly about me. Anyone trying to convince me that I am — and it’s usually me — is wasting her time,” she says. “I was in a war with my body for a long time. If I’d started treating it better sooner, I wouldn’t have spent so many years hating myself. But I love my body now.


Gabourey Sidibe on her dramatic weight loss: 'I did it so I can walk around comfortably in heels'

Gabourey Sidibe’s significant weight loss is not your imagination. With a book about to come out, the “Empire” actress is talking about the weight-loss surgery she had nearly a year ago and has kept a secret until now.

A diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes apparently helped Sidibe make up her mind about getting laparoscopic bariatric surgery in May.

“I truly didn’t want to worry about all the effects that go along with diabetes,” she tells People, which is exclusively excerpting “This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare,” her first memoir.

“I genuinely [would] worry all the time about losing my toes,” says Sidibe, who goes by the nickname Gabby. In the book, she also writes about her battles with depression, anxiety and bulimia, People reported.

It’s unclear when that diagnosis occurred, but she writes that after more than a decade of trying to lose weight naturally, going under the knife wasn’t taking the easy way out.

“My surgeon said they’d cut my stomach in half. This would limit my hunger and capacity to eat. My brain chemistry would change and I’d want to eat healthier. I’ll take it! My lifelong relationship with food had to change,” she writes.

Since getting surgery, she’s made changes in diet and exercise (like she said, so much for the easy way out). In October, she became a model for Lane Bryant. In January, Sidibe posted a shot of herself heading to the gym.

Fans started noticing the 33-year-old’s shape changing in pictures posted to Instagram, with BET calling attention to one particular selfie in early September. Still, she was keeping her weight loss off the official radar, offering advice that same month to the mother of an overweight 12-year-old girl on a “Watch What Happens Live” after-show that basically said, help your daughter to find something she truly loves about herself and stick it out.

“I went through school and I realized how much it prepared me for real life. I’m still dealing with the haters,” Sidibe said before revealing, “I didn’t get good with myself until I was like 25 years old.”

At that age, the breakout star of “Precious” was dealing with the heat of Hollywood’s awards-season publicity. “I faked my way through it very well,” the Oscar nominee told the Los Angeles Times in 2015. “Thank God I was 25 and not 15. That would’ve been insane.”

Since “Precious,” her resume has grown to include roles on “The Big C,” “American Horror Story” and most recently “Empire.” That last one, by the way, was originally slated to be filled by a boyish, petite white girl.

But during that “Precious” period and for years afterward, the topic of weight loss seemed to be a nonstarter. Talking with Oprah Winfrey in 2009, she defended her size. Having embarked on her first diet at age 6, she had finally decided, “I loved myself no matter what my body looked like and what other people thought about my body. … I got tired of feeling bad all the time. I got tired of hating myself.”

Sidibe was OK with herself, and others were happy to come to her defense — with the notable exception of Howard Stern, who said on his show that the spotlight was hurting her. She didn’t have a future in Hollywood because of her size, he said bluntly, and was endangering her health.

My surgeon said they’d cut my stomach in half. This would limit my hunger and capacity to eat. ... My lifelong relationship with food had to change.

Sidibe’s mother, singer Alice Tan Ridley, defended her daughter after Stern’s attack. “She’s a big woman, so what’s wrong with that? She’s not like everyone else in the world," Ridley told “Inside Edition.”

Years later, Sidibe has addressed her weight not for appearance sake but for reasons along the lines of what Stern highlighted so bluntly: It’s about health.

“It has taken me years to realize that what I was born with is all beautiful,” she writes in her book. “I did not get this surgery to be beautiful. I did it so I can walk around comfortably in heels. I want to do a cartwheel. I want not to be in pain every time I walk up a flight of stairs.”

“This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare” comes out in May.

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